Weeks before a key climate change conference in Paris, experts and defense ministers from more than a dozen nations gathered Wednesday in the French capital to discuss the toxic effects of climate change on world security.
“Climate change is a threat to peace,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, describing a world where floods, desertification and droughts will intensify conflicts over ever-scarcer resources and spark a massive wave of environmental refugees.
The meeting included ministers from Chad, Niger, Haiti and the Seychelles, countries that are experiencing firsthand the threats and fallout of conflicts and climate-influenced catastrophes.
Ghana’s defense minister, Benjamin Bewa-Nyog Kunbour, spoke of forests where he used to play as a child that have been reduced to desert, rivers drying up and the country’s tree cover just a small fraction of its size half a century ago.
“Terrorism is significant, but naked hunger is as significant as terrorism,” he said. “And the relationship between terrorist activities and naked hunger are obvious. If you look at the vectors of recruitment into terrorist cells, most of the most vulnerable are hunger-prone areas.”
Scarcity of resources
Nearly 150 nations have pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions ahead of December’s climate change summit in Paris. If carried through, experts say, those cuts could limit global warming to 3 degrees Celsius — 1 degree beyond the limit at which they warn the planet could face catastrophic weather events.
Also addressing Wednesday’s meeting at the Military School in Paris, Niger’s Defense Minister Mahamadou Karidjo described the nexus between climate change and the tangle of militant groups threatening the country, including Boko Haram, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. All are directly linked to ever-scarcer resources, he said, as creeping desert and vanishing arable land threaten the lives of millions of people.
The surface area of Lake Chad — a lifeline that provides water to the four Sahel countries it straddles, including Niger — has shrunk 90 percent from its size in 1962. Scarce water has helped to intensify poverty, hunger and insecurity, Karidjo said, making people living on its shores more vulnerable to Boko Haram extremists.
“The youth no longer listen to their parents. Increasingly, they become targets for Boko Haram terrorists,” he said. “They become drugged, indoctrinated and return to their own villages to sow terror and insecurity.”
Defense Minister Lener Renauld of Haiti, which is threatened by massive deforestation and rising sea levels as temperatures warm, said he was convinced “there’s no plan B” for fighting climate change.
Even as experts say climate change is likely to intensify conflicts over increasingly scarce resources, they suggest mechanisms to fight global warming can help foster peace.
“Reducing our greenhouse gases, developing renewable energy that’s accessible to all countries, decarbonizing our economies, engaging in energy transition is less a constraint than a change to seize,” said French Environment Minister Segolene Royal.
Officials described Wednesday’s meeting in Paris as a first, but it comes as security risks are being increasingly factored into the climate change debate.
In July, a report by the U.S. Defense Department called climate change an “urgent and growing threat” to national security, and this week NATO’s parliament demanded stronger action by member states to tackle a warming planet.
Senator Leila Aichi of EELV, the French Green Party, said French defense officials were lagging behind the Pentagon in confronting the risks and implications of climate change but were heading in the right direction.
“They’re much more responsive on the question than politicians, because they think in the long term,” she said in an interview. “The army is also in much closer contact with nature.”
But, she added, security risks are not fully factored into climate change talks taking place ahead of the Paris summit. Nor has the French military formally incorporated climate change into its defense strategy.
Olivier Dobbels, co-founder of Polarisk, a London consulting group that explores future risks in the Arctic and Antartica, said he was doubtful about the military’s ability to provide answers to climate change.
“They’re prepared from an operational standpoint,” Dobbels said, drawing parallels between the military’s response to climate change and peacekeeping operations in Africa and elsewhere. “Peace enforcement, civilian protection, yes. But from a strategic standpoint, they don’t have a strategy to bring solutions to climate change."